UCLA's Game 1 win looks familiar
OMAHA, Neb. -- Losing to the UCLA baseball team is like getting your truck run off the highway by a guy on his road bike. Like losing a footrace to the skinny kid with his shoes on the wrong feet.
Or so it felt Monday night to the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
The Bruins opened the College World Series finals with a 3-1 victory in an overwhelmingly MSU-friendly environment at TD Ameritrade Park. A maroon-and-white throng filled the bleachers with a show of support rarely seen in such numbers here.
And no doubt many of the weary travelers walked away just as baffled as Mississippi State coach John Cohen and his players.
In moving one win from its first NCAA baseball title, UCLA pitchers coaxed just two strikeouts. The Bulldogs recorded 12 between their two pitchers. The Bruins got timely hitting from Pat Valaika in the first inning and Eric Filia in the fourth.
The Bruins got great defense all over the diamond and timely bounces. An error and a balk failed to inflict damage.
MSU lined into double plays and watched Filia rob Nick Ammirati on the warning track in right field.
"You can call it luck," Mississippi State first baseman Wes Rea said. "You can call it getting it done. We just didn't get it done tonight."
The Bruins call it normal.
"It was kind of a Bruin game," UCLA coach John Savage said.
UCLA lost the star power of pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer that carried it to the best-of-three finals three years ago. That team fell to South Carolina. Cole and Bauer went from Omaha straight into the first round of the draft. They're in the big leagues today.
Meanwhile, right-hander Adam Plutko, a recent 11th-round pick of the Indians who can hit 90 mph with a gusty tailwind, has topped the Bruins' postseason accomplishments. He's 7-0 in eight regional, super regional and CWS starts with a 0.94 ERA over the past three seasons.
Plutko lasted six innings Monday. He was perfect through three before the Bulldogs scored in the fourth, but Plutko got out of a bases-loaded jam on Trey Porter's line drive to Filia in right.
On the back end, former walk-on David Berg pitched out of trouble in the ninth inning for a five-out save, his NCAA-record 24th of the season.
With UCLA, by the time you understand who hit you and where, it's too late.
"You have to make your luck in this game," Cohen said. "That's just how it works."
Look, UCLA is no classic underdog. The school has won 108 NCAA titles, more than any other athletic program.
Mississippi State has never won a crown -- in any sport. It helps explains the thirst of those fans who canceled their weekend plans to drive to Omaha for a shot to witness history.
The beauty of the situation? Savage has convinced his band of Bruins that they're the underdogs. Just look around, he said. It's us against this whole stadium.
"We've embraced that philosophy," Savage said. "And our guys enjoy that. We like people in the stands. And on the West Coast, you don't get that as much as the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast [Conference].
"I think anybody's that been out on the West can tell you that."
Of course, that's got nothing to do with this week. Nor does this emerging Pac-12 supremacy in Omaha. The Bruins, with one win, would give the league its second straight title here over an SEC foe.
The Pac-12 and SEC have met three of the past four years with the championship at stake. A school from one of the leagues will have won five straight crowns here and seven of the past eight.
Last year, Arizona beat two-time defending champ South Carolina 5-1 and 4-1 in the championship series with a showing that looked a little like UCLA's victory Monday.
"We don't really have to score that many runs," said Valaika, whose first-inning single off starter Trevor Fitts opened the scoring, "but it's not like we're trying to only score three runs."
Savage said he'd give his guys about a half-hour to enjoy the win. Maybe 45 minutes.
More likely, they'll settle for none at all. Asked about his record save total after the game, Berg brushed aside the discussion.
"It doesn't really matter," he said. "Records are meant to be broken, but titles are what matter. So if we win a national championship, I'll enjoy that."
Cohen was quick to credit the Bruins. They made their own luck, the coach said.
"They hit balls that found grass," he said. "We hit balls that found gloves."
None of the Bulldogs gushed much over UCLA.
Even the media from Mississippi, 90 minutes after Berg's last pitch, replayed the key moments aloud -- how a few inches in one or two spots made the difference.
Memories fresh, imagine the difficulty with which those players and coaches found sleep as the muggy Omaha night flipped to morning.
This question looms: Did UCLA get into the Bulldogs' collective heads?
Because if so, all those fans in maroon and white might face a quick turnaround.